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State v. Cook

Decided: June 27, 1966.


On appeal from the Essex County Court.

For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Schettino. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.


An Essex County Grand Jury returned two murder indictments against the defendant, James Cook, the first charging him with killing Betty Hammonds on April 22, 1964, and the other charging him with killing Charlotte Hammonds on the same date. On the State's motion and over the defendant's objection the indictments were consolidated for trial. A jury in the County Court found the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree on each indictment with a recommendation of life imprisonment. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to consecutive life terms in State Prison. Defendant appeals directly to this court as of right pursuant to R.R. 1:2-1(c).*fn1

The State's theory was that Cook, after being rebuffed by Louise Hammonds, the mother of Betty Hammonds, age 10, and Charlotte Hammonds, age 8, went to the Hammonds apartment and slashed the throats of the two children.

Louise Hammonds testified that Cook was her boy friend from 1959 until about three weeks before the murders, when she decided to stop going with him. Cook's apartment at 2 Cottage Street in Newark was just around the corner from the Hammonds apartment at 284 Mulberry Street, and, despite the disagreement, Cook continued to be a frequent visitor at Louise's apartment.

In the late afternoon of April 21, 1964, Cook arrived at the Hammonds apartment where Louise, her brother Eligh Hammonds, and several friends were talking, drinking and listening to records. By about 9:00 P.M. everybody except Eligh, who was apparently supposed to act as a baby sitter, and the two children, who had been put to bed in separate rooms, had left the apartment. The evidence further shows that Cook, Louise Hammonds and several friends spent the next few hours drinking and socializing in two nearby taverns, the Tic Toc and the Dreamland. While Louise was at the Tic Toc she was asked by one Junior Simpson to join him for a ride with several others. According to Louise's testimony Cook overheard this invitation and said: "You are not going anyplace. If you think you are smart you go." She replied, "You are not my father. If I want to go I will go." Cook then said, "Okay. You leave out of here and try to go anyplace." Louise sent for her brother, Eligh, who came to the Tic Toc and agreed that it was all right for her to go out with Junior Simpson. She decided to go and testified that just before she got into the car Cook threatened: "Okay, young lady. You go. But this will be one night you will always regret." Simpson, Louise and the others drove off sometime before midnight and she did not return to 284 Mulberry Street until about 3:00 A.M., almost an hour and a half after the bodies of her two children were discovered. After Louise's departure, Cook apparently remained at the Tic Toc for about a half hour and then was not seen by any of the witnesses until he was arrested shortly after the murders.

The argument between Louise Hammonds and Cook and his subsequent threat were overheard by Eligh Hammonds and several other witnesses, all of whom corroborated Louise's testimony.

Eligh Hammonds testified that after he went to the Tic Toc at the request of his sister he returned to the apartment and found the children asleep. He then went back to the Tic Toc where he met Deborah Colvin, John Willie Williams and

Marie Ann Streets. The testimony shows that at about 1:30 A.M. these four left the tavern and returned to 284 Mulberry Street. After entering the apartment Eligh found Charlotte Hammonds in bed with her throat cut. He ran to police headquarters, talked to the desk sergeant, and ran back to the apartment where he found the other child in the same condition.

The medical examiners found the deaths of the children were caused by a sharp cutting instrument which severed their jugular veins and carotid arteries. There was no evidence that either child was sexually molested. Both deaths were estimated to have occurred between 11:25 P.M. on April 21 and 1:25 A.M. on April 22.

Between 1:45 and 2:00 A.M. five members of the Newark Police Department arrived at the scene of the crimes. There they met Eligh Hammonds who identified himself as the uncle of the victims. The police asked Eligh if he knew who killed the children and he replied that James Cook was the only man mean enough to do something like that. He further told the police about the argument between Cook and Louise earlier in the evening and about Cook's threat.*fn2 Several of the police officers also knew that on at least two recent occasions Louise had complained to the police that she had been threatened by Cook, once with a baseball bat and once with a revolver.

After talking to Eligh all five officers immediately proceeded to 2 Cottage Street. The outer door to the building

was locked. A tenant threw down a key and, after the police entered, directed them to Cook's apartment. They knocked, announced they were police officers, but received no response. The police testified that they then heard a scuffling inside and kicked in the door. Using flashlights they went through the darkened apartment to Cook's bedroom where they found him in bed. He was told that he was under arrest. Cook was covered by a blanket and was wearing shorts and an undershirt. His outer clothing was on a night table. One of the officers ordered Cook to get dressed and handed him his clothing. In doing so, he searched the trousers and found a black-handled folding knife in the back pocket. According to police testimony the knife blade was wet. They further testified that when Cook was asked to explain the wet knife he said that he had washed it after eating with it. It was established that Cook had borrowed this knife several months earlier from Constantine Jolas, who operated the Dreamland Tavern. Defendant admitted that he had possession of the knife and that he had borrowed it from Jolas.

Cook's hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was taken to the Hammonds apartment. While he was there one of the officers, Patrolman McCann, forcibly bent Cook over until his face was six inches from Betty Hammonds' body. Patrolman McCann testified as follows:

"Q. Did you interrogate him and take any admissions from him? Did he admit his guilt to you? A. No, sir; he showed no emotion whatsoever. I actually bent him over until his face was about six inches away from the victim. I said, 'did you do that?' He never uttered a word. He never said nothing, nor showed any emotion whatsoever."

Sometime after 3:00 A.M. Cook was driven to Newark Police Headquarters where he was taken to the detective squad room on the third floor. He was questioned by a police detective but denied any complicity in the murder of the two children. He was then fingerprinted and, according to the State's witnesses, placed in a cell between 4:00 and 5:00 A.M.

On the following morning, April 22, Cook was given a sandwich and coffee for breakfast. At 8:00 A.M. he was taken from his cell and questioned again for about one hour and a half, during which time he continued to maintain his innocence. Prior to this interrogation Cook was told that he did not have to answer any questions unless he spoke to a lawyer, but Cook said he didn't need a lawyer because he had nothing to hide. The police testified that at 9:30 he was returned to his cell while written statements were obtained from the witnesses. At 11:10 A.M. Cook was removed from his cell and taken to the interrogation room. This room measures 9' x 14'. According to the State's witnesses he was questioned by three detectives. He was advised of his right to keep silent although he was not then told of his right to an attorney nor did he ask for one. At first he continued to assert his innocence, but after a half hour of questioning he admitted his guilt. He then agreed to accompany the police to the scene of the crimes and explain what had happened. At this time he ...

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